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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
In this article the references in the NT to the structure and appointments of a house will be collected together, and a description of a house in apostolic times will be given, with illustrations from the present writer’s observations in his Eastern travels. For ‘house’ in the sense of those who inhabit the building, and of descendants, see Family.
1. Foundations and materials.-Great attention was paid to the foundations; they were if possible of stone, even if the walls were of mud. The foundations (the apostles and prophets) and the cornerstone (Christ) are the principal elements in the spiritual house (Ephesians 2:20). The importance of the foundations of the wall of the holy city is illustrated in Revelation 21:14 ff. by their being adorned with precious stones. It thus happens in the present day that in the ordinary Eastern house the foundations often cost as much as all the rest of the building put together. In places where stone is plentiful all houses are built of that material; otherwise only the very rich men’s houses are of stone and all others are built of sun-dried bricks (sometimes of kiln-dried bricks, which are more expensive), or even of mud set in layers, each layer being left to dry hard before the next layer is placed on the top of it. The sun-dried bricks are made simply of clay with which chopped straw is mixed (Exodus 5:7), and are set to dry in the sun for a few days before they are wanted for the building. Thus brick-making and house-building go on together on the same ground. The perishable nature of the material explains why, with the exception of the royal palaces, which were built of stone, nearly all Nineveh has completely vanished. If Layard’s rather doubtful theory is correct (Nineveh and its Remains, London, 1849, vol. ii. p. 236ff.), that vast city of ‘three days’ journey’ [round the walls] (Jonah 3:3) occupied the large area between the fortresses, which alone remain to this day, and was some 75 miles in circumference; but of the buildings in the centre of the area there is not a trace. The same thing also explains the references to ‘digging through’ houses in Matthew 6:19; Matthew 24:43, Luke 12:39; this is quite an easy thing to do.
2. The roof (δῶμα; sometimes στέγη, Matthew 8:8, Luke 7:6).-This is flat, made of mud laid on beams of wood, crossed by laths, and covered with matting. It is used in summer as a sleeping-place, and by day (especially in the evening) as a sitting-room, or often as a promenade, for roofs of adjacent houses in the villages are frequently joined together. It is possible sometimes to walk from one end of the village to the other without descending the ladders or staircases to the courtyards and streets. Hence in time of persecution the fugitive would do well to flee along the roofs rather than fall a prey to the enemy in the streets (Matthew 24:17, Mark 13:15, Luke 17:31). So St. Peter goes to the roof to pray (Acts 10:9). The roof is a favourite place for village gossip; this is the ‘proclamation on the housetops’ of Matthew 10:27, Luke 12:3. The nature of the material of the roof explains how easy it was to dig through it (Mark 2:4, ἐξορύξαντες; cf. Galatians 4:15) in order to let the paralytic down; the mention of tiles in || Luke 5:19 is merely a paraphrase adopted by St. Luke for the comprehension of his more Western readers-or at least of readers less acquainted with the customs of Palestine than those of St. Mark (W. M. Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem?, 1898, p. 57f.).
3. The windows (θυρίδες).-In the East these now usually look into the courtyard, not into the street, as privacy is of the greatest importance. Such was probably the case in Acts 20:9, where Eutychus, sitting in a window, falls from the third story (ἀπὸ τοῦ τριστέγου); as Eastern houses are usually of two stories (for the kitchen see below), we must here have an exception to the general rule. It is not common for windows to be in the outside wall of a town; yet this must have been the case in Acts 9:25, 2 Corinthians 11:33, where St. Paul is let down through the town wall and escapes, in both cases from Damascus, for both passages seem to refer to the same incident (cf. also Rahab, Joshua 2:15). Except in the better houses, no glass is used in the windows; oiled cotton or paper serves instead of glass in the winter, being removed in the summer. Glass (other than that used for mirrors) is mentioned in the NT only in Revelation 4:6; Revelation 15:2; Revelation 21:18; Revelation 21:21; its costliness in ancient times, as in the modern East, is seen by its being coupled with gold in Job 28:17 Revised Version .
4. The house-gate.-The door or gate itself is θύρα (Mark 2:2, John 18:16, figuratively in Revelation 3:20), but πυλών is the gateway or entry of a house, especially if large, as well as of a city (Matthew 26:71, Luke 16:20, Acts 10:17; Acts 12:13 f.; in the last passage the full expression ‘door of the gate’ (θύρα τοῦ πυλῶνος) is used, but in Acts 12:14 πυλών includes θύρα, for it is ‘opened’ by Rhoda; cf. articles Door and Gate). For a house-gate πύλη is not ordinarily used; it is the gate of a city, and so of a public building like the Temple or a prison (Acts 3:10; Acts 12:10, but Acts 3:2 has θύρα). The house-gate was naturally kept locked in troublous times, as in Acts 10:17; Acts 12:13-16, and was guarded by a porter (Mark 13:34, ὁ θυρωρός) or a portress (John 18:16, ἡ θυρωρός; cf. Mark 14:69, Acts 12:13 f.), just as the figurative sheepfold in John 10:3 is guarded by ‘the porter,’ probably the Holy Spirit (H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the NT, 1909, p. 146). The entry (πυλών) is either the same as, or else leads into, the fore-court (προαύλιον) of Mark 14:68, where || Matthew 26:71 has πυλών. Outside the gate of the great houses the beggars sit (Luke 16:20, Lazarus), as they did at the gate of the Temple (Acts 3:2; Acts 3:10). Inside the gate, perhaps in the fore-court, were the water-pots for washing (John 2:6); evidently not in the guest-room.
5. The courtyard (αὐλή).-This occupied the centre of the house (Matthew 26:69, Mark 14:54; Mark 14:66). We read of a charcoal fire in it-a brazier in the open air (Mark 14:54; Mark 14:67, Luke 22:55 f., John 18:18; John 18:25), in the middle (Luke 22:55). On this courtyard the rooms opened; our Lord inside was visible to Peter in the court (Luke 22:61). The rooms, in places where there is little cold weather, might be entirely open to the court, as may be seen at the present day, e.g. at Mosul; or, in colder places, might open on the court with doors and windows, with or without a covered gallery.
6. The kitchen.-The kitchen itself is not mentioned in the NT, though the oven (Matthew 6:30) and kitchen utensils (Mark 7:4) are referred to. Yet in all but the richer houses it is the most commonly used part of the house, and the family ordinarily live in it; in some Eastern countries it is emphatically called ‘the house’ as opposed to ‘the rooms.’ The oven is a hole in the floor; the fire, of dried manure, is kindled at the bottom; and the sides are made of hardened clay, to which the flaps of dough adhere until they are baked and ready to be hooked out as bread. Other food is cooked over the fire in pots. As there is no chimney (in our sense of the word), the kitchen must necessarily be of one story only, to allow of a hole in the roof for the escape of the smoke.
7. The rooms.-(a) There is not in the East, in the ordinary houses, the distinction usually found in the West between bedrooms and sitting-rooms. The latter are turned into bedrooms by spreading the bedclothes on the floor. Thus the ‘bed-chamber’ (κοιτών, Acts 12:20) of which Blastus was guardian would be unusual except in a great house such as that of Herod.
(b) Most houses, even of the comparatively poor, have a fairly large room or rooms, often, but not always, on the first floor, to entertain guests who come unexpectedly, for Eastern hospitality is great (see Home). Hence we read that the upper room (ἀνώγεον or ἀνώγαιον or ἀνωγεών or ἀνάγαιον) of Mark 14:14 f., Luke 22:11 f. was large, and it is expressly called a ‘guest-chamber,’ κατάλυμα, i.e. a place where the guests unpack their baggage; it may be doubted if κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7 is rightly rendered ‘inn,’ for this in Luke 10:34 is called πανδοχεῖον. Probably the κατάλυμα was a guest-chamber in a house where Joseph expected to lodge, but it is a word elastic in meaning (see A. Plummer, St. Luke 2 [International Critical Commentary , 1898], 54). The upper room of the Last Supper was very probably the place where the Ten and the rest were assembled on Easter Day, and if so must have been somewhat large, though the word used (ἠθροισμένους, Luke 24:33 Revised Version ; cf. Luke 24:9) suggests crowding, just as the compounds συνηθροισμένοι, συναθροίσας in Acts 12:12; Acts 19:25 suggest a large assembly. In Acts the word used for such an upper room is ὑπερῷον, Acts 1:13; Acts 9:37; Acts 9:39 (Dorcas) Acts 20:8 (at Troas). The room mentioned in Acts 1:13 must have been large, for it held 120 people; and it was perhaps the same as the coenaculum of Mark 14:14 f., for it is called ‘the upper room’ (Revised Version ). It has been suggested that as different words are used, the rooms must have been different; yet this would not account for St. Luke’s using ἀνώγεον in his Gospel, and always ὑπερῷον in Acts. It was no doubt in such a guest-chamber on the first floor that Jesus healed the paralytic, for it was under the roof. (With this arrangement for an upper room we may compare the ordinary provision in a caravanserai of a room or rooms over the gateway for the guests, while the stables are below, and round the courtyard.) Such an upper room is probably the ξενία in Philemon 1:22, Acts 28:23 -a lodging in a private house. In response to St. Paul’s request, Philemon would doubtless offer his own guestroom. When the Apostle arrived in Rome he probably at first lodged, guarded by soldiers, in the guest-room of a friend, though afterwards he hired a private house (μίσθωμα, Acts 28:30). For the use of these guest-rooms as the first Christian churches, see Family.
(c) Besides the above rooms we read in the NT of a ταμεῖον (better ταμιεῖον) and an ἀποθήκη. The latter is a barn or granary (Matthew 3:12; Matthew 6:26; Matthew 13:30, Luke 3:17; Luke 12:18; Luke 12:24). The former is properly a store-chamber (Luke 12:24), and is usually used in that sense in the Septuagint (Deuteronomy 28:8, etc.). All Eastern houses have such chambers, and for security they are usually placed so as not to have an outside wall, but to open off the kitchen. Hence any inner chamber used for living in came to be so called (Matthew 6:6; Matthew 24:26, Luke 12:3). The Latin translations of ταμεῖον vary greatly (Plummer, St. Luke2, 318).
8. Paving of the rooms.-This is very seldom of wood (except in Solomon’s Temple, 1 Kings 6:15; 1 Kings 6:30, where the wood was overlaid with gold), but, even on the upper floors, of beaten mud, sometimes of a sort of cement. In rich houses pavements of stone or marble were used; thus the Gabbatha (Λιθόστρωτον) of John 19:13 was probably a hall paved with stone.
9. Furniture of the rooms.-Very little is said of this in the NT; and, in truth, Eastern houses need little furniture. Carpets (with straw mats under them to protect them from the mud floor), mattresses, and bedclothes are practically the only necessaries. When we read in the NT the various words for a ‘bed’ as used for sleeping in-κλίνη (Matthew 9:2, Luke 5:18), κλινίδιον (Luke 5:19; Luke 5:24; the same as κλίνη, Luke 5:18), κράββατον (Mark 2:4; Mark 6:55, John 5:8)-only mattresses and bedclothes are meant. The man who rises in the morning ‘takes up his bed,’ and, rolling it up in an outer cover, places it against the wall, where it serves as a cushion in the day-time. The same is probably true of κλίνη in Mark 7:30, Luke 17:34, Revelation 2:22, where either sense is possible; and of the κλινἀρια καὶ κράββατα in Acts 5:15 (inferior Manuscripts substitute κλίναι for the former word), where the sick are laid in the streets. On the other hand, the low couches (κλίναι, triclinia, τρικλίνια [the last not in the NT] used for meals are clearly articles of furniture in Mark 4:21; Mark 7:4 (here a ‘Western’ addition, but it may be genuine), Luke 8:16; for a lamp may be put under them (cf. ἀρχιτρίκλινος, John 2:6). On these couches the people reclined; hence ἀνάκειμαι is ‘to sit at meat’ (Matthew 9:10, etc.), and the guests are ἀνακείμενοι (Matthew 22:10). It seems doubtful if bedsteads are ever mentioned in the NT; see, further, article Bed, Couch. The ‘candlestick’ or lamp-stand (λυχνία) mentioned in the above passages is also a piece of furniture, set in the middle of the room to hold the light. Chairs and tables are not much used by non-westernized Orientals to this day; but sometimes a low stand is placed on the floor to hold food at meals, though more often the meats are placed on a tablecloth on the ground. Thus ‘table’ in the Bible does not usually denote an article of furniture, except in the case of the money-changers in Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15, where a house is not being spoken of. The throne (βῆμα), of a king is mentioned in Acts 12:21, and figuratively the θρόνος of God and the θρόνοι of angels or men (Matthew 19:28, Revelation 20:4, etc.) are spoken of; but ordinary people sat, as they still sit in the true East, on the ground, of on cushions, though chairs or seats (καθέδραι) were not unknown (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15).
Literature.-C. Warren in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. 431, article ‘House (especially for the OT); A. J. Maclean and W. H. Browne, The Catholicos of the East and his People, London, 1892; A. H. Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, do. 1849, especially pt. i. ch. vi. and vii., pt. ii. ch. ii.
A. J. Maclean.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'House'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/house.html. 1906-1918.
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